Jesus’ Hell and Dante’s Internet

I actually had a draft post for a while, planning to blog about hell and Jesus, which was called “Christians approach hell (and Jesus) from different angles.” But then the image below came my way via Facebook, and it not only prompted me to return to the subject, but seemed to deserve to be the starting point for the post. What do you think? Was that the right choice?

I think that the above actually illustrates nicely the way our ideas about sin, evil, and wrongdoing, and our ideas about punishment fitting for such things, change over time. I suspect that many people are more upset by internet trolling than by other things for which Late Antique and Medieval writers consigned people to the nether regions of outer darkness.

The thing that sparked my desire to blog about this topic was Ian Paul’s post, “Is It Time To Forget About Hell,” in which he responded to my suggestion that we might reject a view that Jesus held about a topic such as this one. He wrote very briefly about what I wrote in my own post:

That’s a perfectly legitimate approach to take—but it is not a Christian approaching to reading the New Testament, in that it bears little or no relation to historic Christian belief as expressed in the Creeds.

Now, to be fair, the blog post that I wrote, to which he was responding, was called “Was Jesus Christlike?” and so was intentionally provocative. But the more basic underlying reality is something that ought to be widely acknowledged. Jesus, as a human being, held views about the human body, plant seeds, the cosmos, and other subjects related to what we call the natural world which reflect his time and culture. If someone cannot acknowledge that, they are denying that Jesus was genuinely human.

This is controversial only because of the doctrine that Jesus was sinless, and the view that being wrong is itself somehow sinful. Perhaps that is correct, since our wrong beliefs typically reflect widespread assumptions that are based on inadequate or misunderstood information, and about which we really ought to say, if we are honest, “we don’t know,” and yet we wrongly think that we do. Is that “sin” and if so, could Jesus be entirely exempted from such aspects of human existence without it entailing a denial of his humanity?

For many progressive and liberal Christians, the idea that Jesus was “sinless” simply isn’t an issue, because we don’t think of Jesus as a pre-existent divine figure striding the Earth, and it is typically in connection with that view of Jesus that the idea of his sinlessness is important.

This gets really interesting when we bring into the picture something that another progressive Christian and Patheos blogger, Benjamin Corey, wrote on his blog:

It strikes me that American Evangelicalism invented an entirely new version of the Christian religion with its own concept of “salvation,” and the consequences of this religion are dire. It has taken the message of Jesus and the biblical mandate to pattern our lives after Jesus, and in so many was reduced it to the near-effortless act of “accepting Christ into your heart.” In fact, it’s become a bizarre religion where one can actually refer to themselves as a Christian while simultaneously disagreeing with what Jesus taught. 

That’s not how this thing was originally supposed to work, folks. If one disagrees with Jesus, the word Christian ought not apply.

In context, Ben is focusing on the willingness of many American Evangelicals to disregard the ethical teaching and example of Jesus. But no one adheres to the moral commands of Jesus literally any more than they do to Jesus’ views of the natural world. I am thinking not only of what might be judged clear hyperbole – if a part of your body causes you to sin, cut it off – but also of the command to renounce all our possessions, about which we are told in Luke 14:33 that no one who fails to do so can be Jesus’ follower.

And so perhaps (as I discussed in an earlier post) we’re “all going to hell” since we fail to adhere to what Jesus taught. But perhaps instead we need to recognize that none of us is able to or even supposed to think, speak, and act in precisely the way Jesus did; that this leaves us uncertain about what we are supposed to do; and that this is a reason for religious people to have attitudes of humility and reliance on God rather than on our understanding of and adherence to the teaching of Jesus.

Perhaps, in fact, that is itself one of the answers to the question “What would Jesus do?”

I would end it there, but someone would inevitably accuse me of backtracking or contradicting myself with that last sentence. And so let me emphasize that there are, indeed, two different kinds of Christians, as Ben Corey suggests. But they aren’t those who emphasize intellectual response versus one that is outwardly visible in a way of life. Rather, they are those who think we are supposed to adhere precisely to rules, doctrines, and other things that are taught and described in the Bible, versus those who recognize that the most “biblical” or “Christlike” thing to do may be precisely to apply a biblical principle in a manner that no one in the Bible applies it, even in a way that perhaps undermines a longstanding practice or tradition.

See further Lee M’s post that offers a “gut-check” on the subject of hell. In it he writes, “Jesus might have said, if you who are wicked, would never condemn your children to everlasting, conscious torment, how much less would your Father in heaven dream of doing such a thing?” See too Matthew Distefano’s post with challenging questions for those who believe in hell.

Of related interest, see Fred Clark on progressive Evangelicals and proof-texting, one of two recent posts on that topic. Less seriously, see the spoof piece in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, “Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell, Reimagined for Linguistic Transitions.” 

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    This is a vital topic and very difficult to discuss without rapidly getting into the midst of a number of intertwined issues. I think you could write blog posts for months and still have trouble getting to the roots.

    But at least we can acknowledge, as you are trying to make clear, that none of us “follow Jesus” in the sense that the disciples did. In the first place, we can’t literally pack up and follow him around as they did. In the second place, we are missing so much of the shared context in which Jesus said what he said and did what he did. This is where history can help us, but we always have to acknowledge the risks and shortcomings involved in such reconstruction.

    In terms of the practical experience of Christianity in America, it’s hard to explain without Hell. Many Christians in America became Christians because they didn’t want to go to Hell. This is the primary value Christianity has for them and the primary value they offer to others – become a Christian and you won’t go to Hell. This is the locus of their spiritual journey. Other things, like being a certain sort of person in the world or speaking prophetically into the world, are all subservient to avoiding Hell. This tends to produce a spirituality where the “Christian life” tends to get boiled down to an abstinence-based morality (i.e. the stuff that will send you right back to Hell if you aren’t careful), and the further afield you get from whether or not someone is going to Hell, the more suspect you become, whether we’re talking about doctrine, values, or life.

    It’s only within the context of saving people from Hell that people can, with a straight face, refer to things like pursuing social justice as potential distractions from the Gospel.

    Then there is another loose group that doesn’t hold to at least the traditional view of Hell, or if they do, think of it as a secondary consideration. For these people, Hell has very little to do with why they ended up as a Christian. Instead, they’re more about the project. They as individuals want to embody the virtues and uphold the values they see in Jesus -as they understand him- with the idea of mankind being better to each other and the world being a better place for it.

    But I think one’s view of Hell has a big influence on which direction you head, and that direction makes a big difference in many other areas as well.

    • John MacDonald

      James said:

      But no one adheres to the moral commands of Jesus literally any more than they do to Jesus’ views of the natural world. I am thinking not only of what might be judged clear hyperbole – if a part of your body causes you to sin, cut it off – but also of the command to renounce all our possessions, about which we are told in Luke 14:33 that no one who fails to do so can be Jesus’ follower.

      It should be kept in mind that these “super-ethical” images of Jesus, which pop up in the Gospels from time to time, may not reflect anything the historical Jesus ever said, but are simply legendary embellishments to portray Jesus in the most moral light possible.

      And, Jesus was not without sin. For instance, Jesus lied to his family about not going up to the feast, but then went in secret:

      “[Jesus said] Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast. … But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret. (John 7:8-10)”

    • 8th amendment frrolfe

      What about just being a decent person? If God doesn’t think this is enough then he is either a monster or a sad reflection of the people who want “others” to suffer.

      • I don’t think being a “decent person” is enough, although it’s a good start! Defeating the depth of selfishness, greed, anger and violence in this world requires love on a deep and massive scale. <3

  • Chuck Johnson

    That’s not how this thing was originally supposed to work, folks. If one disagrees with Jesus, the word Christian ought not apply.

    Before the Protestants, there were the Catholics.
    Within that faith, agreement or disagreement with Jesus was not much of an issue.
    The faithful were not expected to own or read a Bible. They were expected to hear the teachings of the Church and obey them.
    God and Jesus were used as magical icons to give the Church its power and authority.

  • Excellent article, right on point and well said!

  • Ulf Turkewitsch

    Christians or evangelicals don’t actually disregard Jesus moral or ethical teachings. They often fail in this regard because they are imperfect humans. Take a close look at Romans; chapter 7 and the beginning of chapter 8. This section will provide a clear analysis of the problem of “sin”. Interesting post though , Mr. McGrath, thanks.